Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Fairness Standoff Prevents Practical Solutions to Pollution and Traffic!

Americans are hung up on “fairness” and the most effective and efficient solutions to many problems like traffic and pollution just aren’t “fair” if by that term you mean either we all pay or no one pays.  SNAGHTML2810c39eI’m an example.

As a CEO, I always insisted that everyone including management either take a turn at “break-room” duty or in later years, make a donation to United Way for the privilege of a pass.

I wanted to demonstrate that no one in the organization is above any task but similar to how we think about pollution, it was predicated on the thinking that everyone contributed to messing up the break-room equally.

We all truck down to have our car inspected each year just so the system is “fair” but the problem of polluting cars involves a tiny fraction of vehicles that we’ve known for years would be better revealed by random, mobile testing.

But owners of those vehicles are disproportionately people who are economically disadvantaged and targeting them would seem well, unfair even though that can be overcome by .  So to appear “fair” we stick with a huge, unwieldy and inefficient process.

But the burden on the disadvantaged could be offset, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker from an interview with Donald Stedman an expert at Denver University, “A half-dozen vans could test thirty thousand cars a day.”

“For the same twenty-five million dollars that Denver's motorists now spend on on-site testing, Stedman estimates, the city could identify and fix twenty-five thousand truly dirty vehicles every year, and within a few years cut automobile emissions in the Denver metropolitan area by somewhere between thirty-five and forty per cent…and stop just managing its smog problem and start ending it.”

But as Gladwell also notes, that solution could rub people on the right wrong because it would unfairly give special treatment to people who don’t deserve it and people on the left would see it as efficiency over fairness.

So we’ll just stay stuck in making everyone jump through hoops just to be “fair.”

Similarly, I recently read in Wired magazine about a rigorous analysis of traffic problems in the Manhattan borough of NYC by Charles Komanoff (click on infographic above.)  Based on the data, Komonoff computes that a change in transportation policies would solve the traffic problems and:

  • $1.3 billion in motorist tolls per year—all of which would be spent on improving public transit—and
  • save $2.5 billion in time costs by reducing delays.
  • add $190 million from decreased mortality as a result of making streets more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly,
  • generate $83 million in collision damage reduction, and
  • $34 million in lower CO2 emissions.

But we’d all rather dither away in traffic than pay a fee to travel on a public road or admit that we don’t all contribute equally to the problem….


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